By March 16, 2016 Read More →

Abraham’s Ur: Is the Pope Going to the Wrong Place?

Abraham's Ur - Is the Pope going to the wrong placePope John Paul II is planning a millennium pilgrimage in 2000 that will take him to Bethlehem, Jerusalem, Sinai—and Iraq! Why Iraq? Because that is where the patriarch Abraham was born—at Ur.

But wait a minute. The Pope may be going to the wrong Ur. Perhaps he should be going to Turkey.

More than 40 years ago, Cyrus Gordon, an eminent Biblical scholar and Near Eastern polymath who recently celebrated his 91st birthday, argued that the commonly designated Ur, on the west bank of the Euphrates River in southern Iraq, is not the Ur where Abraham was born.

I talked to the still-very-much-with-it scholar in a telephone interview at his Massachusetts home. Gordon told me that before the middle of the 19th century, everyone located Ur in the north, based on the only evidence then available, the Biblical text. With the decipherment of cuneiform, a southern Ur was identified in Iraq, an Ur that ultimately produced fabulous finds. As a result, scholars changed their focus to the southern Ur (see map).

One thing seems clear: There was more than one Ur. Places named Ur, or something linguistically close enough to it to be a candidate for Biblical Ur (such as Ura), have turned up in numerous ancient inscriptions—at Ugarit (on the Mediterranean coast in modern Syria), at Nuzi (in northeastern Iraq), at Alalakh (in Turkey about a hundred miles north of Ugarit) and, most recently, in the extraordinary archive from Ebla (in northern Syria, east of Ugarit). The Ebla tablets include references to places called Ur, Ura and Urau. Unfortunately, none of these references can be located with precision, but the findspots of the tablets indicate the cities were most likely somewhere in northern Syria or southern Turkey—relatively near Haran.

And Haran is where Abram, as he was then called, went with his father, Terah, after they left Ur (Genesis 11:31). There is no dispute regarding the location of Haran, where Terah died (Genesis 11:28–32). The ancient name has stuck to the site. It is about 10 miles north of the Syrian border, in Turkey, strategically located on the east-west highway that links the Tigris River with the Mediterranean Sea. It was a major city in the Middle Bronze Age (first half of the second millennium B.C.E.), the probable date of the patriarchal age, if we accept the position that there was such an age, and such a person as Abraham.

Unfortunately, except for a small sounding, Haran has never been excavated. A major expedition was planned by Harvard professor Lawrence Stager, but bureaucratic obstacles laid by the Turkish government blocked the way. That was when Stager (and his financial backer, Leon Levy) moved instead to Ashkelon, in Israel. (Ashkelon is now the most prominent American excavation in the Holy Land.) What we know about Haran, therefore, comes mostly from cuneiform archives such as the Nuzi tablets, which provide a vivid picture of life in Haran during the Middle Bronze Age.

Perhaps the major objection to identifying Biblical Ur with the southern Ur in Iraq is that it is so far away from Haran—nearly a thousand miles. As the author of the entry on Haran in theAnchor Bible Dictionary notes, “The traditional site of Ur in S[outhern] Mesopotamia may be reexamined as some seek the location near Haran.”

Moreover, if Abraham left for Canaan from the southern Ur, he certainly took an unnecessarily long route by going all the way north to Haran. He could have cut west long before reaching Haran—at Mari, for example.

Gordon points to another objection: The southern Ur lies on the west bank of the Euphrates. Here’s why that matters: When Abraham was an old man, he sent his servant back to “the land of my birth”—Ur—to find a wife for his son Isaac (Genesis 24:4). Abraham’s obedient servant went back to the land of Abraham’s birth and there found Rebekah, Laban’s sister. (Actually, Laban is the first person to greet Abraham’s servant.) A generation later, Isaac’s son Jacob went back to work for Laban, who lived in or near Haran. After working for Laban for 20 years, Jacob fled back to Canaan. To do so, however, he had to cross the Euphrates (Genesis 31:21). If Ur was on the west bank of the Euphrates, as the southern Ur is, it would not be necessary to cross the Euphrates to travel to Canaan. We know that Haran—and therefore, most likely, Ur—was east of the Euphrates, so one would have to cross the river to get to Canaan. Ergo, the southern Ur cannot be the place that Abraham sent his servant back to.

In addition, we are told that Laban lived in Paddan-Aram, in the Haran region (Genesis 28:2, 5,6, 7). Scholars equate this with Aram-Naharaim, Abraham’s ancestral home (Genesis 24:10). Both terms refer, although somewhat vaguely, to areas in upper (northern) Mesopotamia, as indicated in other Biblical references.

What turned scholars’ attention to southern Ur as the place of Abraham’s birth were the remarkable excavations at the site. It was identified as Ur shortly after Henry Rawlinson deciphered cuneiform. In 1854 an Englishman named J.E. Taylor dug up at the site some foundation deposits containing clay cylinders with cuneiform writing all over them. When they were deciphered, they identified the site as Ur.

In 1922 Sir Leonard Woolley began a major excavation of the site that continued until 1934 (see the following article in this issue). He made a number of spectacular discoveries, including the so-called royal tombs, rich with grave goods in gold, silver and lapis lazuli. He also came upon a mud layer that he linked with Noah’s Flood. Woolley was a prolific popular writer with a flair for publicity, which might account for the fact that he referred to his Ur as “the biblical home of Abraham” and to his finds as “worthy of Abraham.” If his purpose was to connect the site to the Biblical patriarch, he was successful.

The southern Ur reached its zenith in what is called the Ur III period, about 2100–2000 B.C.E. In the two subsequent centuries, it was a major port. The city expanded to 125 acres. As to whether this was Biblical Ur, the author of the entry on Ur in the Anchor Bible Dictionary notes “a certain contradiction in the closeness suggested by the Genesis text between a prodigious urban capital and a nomad clan.”

But the identification of the southern Ur as Abraham’s Ur has its defenders, including Harvard professor Peter Machinist, with whom I also spoke. Noting that Cyrus Gordon’s suggestion of a northern Ur has been “largely rejected today in favor of the southern Ur,” Machinist stresses that the Bible identifies the site not simply as “Ur” but as “Ur of the Chaldeans” (Kasdim in Hebrew). The passages containing this designation come from the part of the Pentateuch known as P, or the Priestly Source, which was written in about the sixth century B.C.E. At that time the location of the Kasdim was clear—in southern Mesopotamia, in the area of the southern Ur.

Machinist also places little credence in the argument that southern Ur was too far from Haran. Such lengthy journeys are known, he says, right up the Euphrates River. As to the southern Ur’s being on the west side of the Euphrates, the Euphrates is notorious for its changes of course in the southern part. In fact, it is now six miles from Ur. Where it was two or three thousand years ago is anyone’s guess. According to Machinist, the burden of proof is on anyone who disputes the southern Ur; the opponents have not met this burden, he says.

Gordon is not impressed. The southern Ur, although often identified in ancient inscriptions, is never referred to as “Ur of the Kasdim,” he says. Moreover, the Kasdim (Chaldeans) never appear in any historical record before about the 13th century B.C.E., hundreds of years after Abraham’s time, so this reference could not be a part of the original tradition, assuming its historicity. P may have used the term because that was the term he knew at the time he wrote, but that was not the Ur from which Abraham came.

Gordon mentions two possibilities for the location of Abraham’s Ur, both in southern Turkey near the Syrian border. One is Ura, northeast of Haran. Another is Urfa, about an hour’s drive from Haran. Urfa, called Orhai in Syriac Christian literature, may be related to Ur. Even today local tradition in Urfa insists that this is where Abraham was born.

We will probably never know for sure which Ur is Abraham’s Ur, where it all began with God’s call to “go forth … to the land that I will show you” (Genesis 12:1). But there is at least a serious question as to whether the Pope will be going to the right place if he is looking for Abraham’s birthplace in Iraq.

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